Rise of the Planet of the Apes, the riveting, ingenious prequel to the 50 year-old franchise, takes its source material more seriously than most fans. That’s part of why it works so well. Where we largely see Planet of the Apes as a charming, slightly racist hunk of dystopian cheese, this new film sees it as the inevitable conclusion to an existential nightmare. And it has dramatized that nightmare to the tune of one of the best films of the year.
Humans begin Rise as its heroes, and end it as bit players, bowled over by a juggernaut they’ve set in motion. James Franco – how good to see him neither angling for an Oscar nor playing his persona for laughs – plays Dr. Will Rodman, a neuroscientist experimenting with a genetic treatment that boosts brain function as a way of reversing the effects of Alzheimer’s. After a chimpanzee trial goes awry – one of the apes gets loose and scares the shit out of the board of directors – its subjects are put down, and Will is told to go back to the drawing board. Except it turns out that the renegade chimp was pregnant, and the lab tech (Tyler Labine, so brilliant in Tucker and Dale Vs. Evil) can’t bring himself to euthanize the baby. So he persuades Will to take it home with him.
Will’s “temporary houseguest” soon becomes a permanent pet. The chimp bonds with Will’s father (John Lithgow), who naturally suffers from Alzheimer’s, and who names the clever little ape Caesar. As the years fly, Will can’t help but notice Caesar’s prodigious development: by age three, he’s mastered rudimentary sign language, and can puzzle-solve in a flash. Will concludes that his gene therapy was passed down to his original subject’s offspring, and has had an unexpected effect: in the absence of damaged neurons to repair, it has built new ones, resulting in a hyper-intelligent breed of chimp.
Here I should say something about Caesar. Following in the tradition of Planet of the Apes, he is played by a human actor – Andy Serkis. But rather than stick him in a costume, per the original film, or elaborate make-up effects, per Tim Burton’s underrated remake, director Rupert Wyatt subjects Serkis to an improved, cutting-age version of the motion-capture process that Peter Jackson used to turn the same actor into Gollum, and later King Kong. The result is incredible. Caesar is completely convincing, complex emotions registering on his simian face in a way that is recognizable but not exactly human; stilted; at once animalistic and straight-up alien. Here’s a movie that uses the uncanny valley – that uncomfortable feeling you get when a human representation is almost-but-not-quite photorealistic, like you’re watching an animated corpse – to its advantage. And then there are Ceasar’s eyes, which Will’s therapy turned into a beautiful shade of hazel: Wyatt loves to zoom in on those eyes, and they become in some ways the heartbeat of the film. Certainly the vicious intelligence behind them is its driving force.
Everyone knows where the story is headed, but how it gets there is one of the year’s supreme movie pleasures. Rise of the Planet of the Apes is clean, fast-paced, majestic, and gorgeously crafted. It gives us recognizable characters without wasting time setting up useless romantic subplots or tortuous backstories. The action hops effortlessly from an African jungle to a high-tech lab to a tree-lined suburban street to Muir Woods to, finally, in one of the year’s most rousing scenes, the Golden Gate Bridge. Many of the film’s set pieces – such as a long, beautiful prison break montage – involve (for the most part) no people and no dialogue; they are pure visual filmmaking, assisted by the relentlessly unsettling apes. This is a complete special effects triumph – both technical and artistic.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes has in spades what so many of the big summer movies this year were missing entirely: stakes. A sense of grandeur and importance; of something big happening before our eyes. After sitting through hours and hours of Avengers bullshit and other forms of artless geek-pandering, what a joy to see a movie – a real movie – a movie movie. Go.
— Eugene Novikov